What Colin Taught Me: Questions, Mentors and Race During Math Time
Each year our kindergarten classrooms fill with eager children. Some students come with quiet dispositions; others are overflowing with things to say. Often the talkative group is told to be a little quieter. Sometimes, particularly if the students are boys of color, their talkative behavior is seen as disruptive and their identity as burgeoning mathematicians is at risk though it has scarcely begun to form. But what happens when we raise the status of talkers during math time?
It’s almost time for my kindergarteners to walk across the graduation stage in construction-paper caps into summertime and Colin is explaining to his classmates how he solved the math problem on the board. “That’s a take away (problem)… because it starts at 13 which is high and then goes down low to the lower number.”
I suspect that since he first started to talk Colin has been happy to talk about his thoughts on his favorite topics. He didn’t transform from a shy boy to a talker in kindergarten, but he did harness the power of his gregarious self and turn into a metacognitive mathematical powerhouse. At the end of his first formal year of schooling, Colin is now comfortable sharing solutions and telling his friends how he got there.
For a year I audio recorded Colin and a few other students as they worked through math problems, in an attempt to learn how I could strengthen my students’ mathematical reasoning abilities. In the process I came to better understand the way my young learners develop and express conceptual math understanding as well as what my teacher role should be in fomenting and accessing this knowledge.
I began collecting audio data for my own research during whole group math lessons. When I listened to the first few recordings I heard a lot of my voice and not as much of my students’ voices. How could I understand Colin’s mathematical reasoning if I wasn’t really giving him a chance to fully explain himself? To collect good data I was forced to talk less and listen more. Instead of jumping in and explaining a math problem I paused, I prompted, I waited. I listened.
The story of Colin’s metacognitive math talk ascent is particularly worth writing about because Colin is an African American boy. As a white woman I have sometimes felt ill equipped to mentor the delightful, vivacious, and smart African American boys in my class. As a young child I felt very close to many of my teachers, most of them woman whom I could imagine being like one day. Students need to see parts of themselves in the adults around them and with my long blond hair and pencil skirts I have doubted my ability to be a role model to my African American boys.
Colin came into my classroom ready to talk and talk and talk. I have always known it was my job to make sure students have the tools and time to explore higher order math content. Through Colin and my data recordings I learned that increasing the amount of time students spend talking about math can increase their knowledge, and provide a setting for talkative students to become leaders. The more I let my students talk and question each other about meaty math content, the easier it is for them to find role models: each other.
Georgia Wood spent last school year looking closely at articulating mathematical reasoning in her kindergarten classroom in San Leandro Unified. In addition to her teaching, she works for Illustrative Mathematics, an organization that creates high level math tasks to accompany the Common Core.